After last year’s hugely successful visit by Queen Elizabeth to the Republic and a joint communiqué of extraordinary warmth following last March’s summit between David Cameron and Enda Kenny, British-Irish relations were generally considered to have reached a closeness unprecedented in more than 90 years since Irish independence and partition.
In July the Irish ambassador to Britain, Bobby McDonagh, spoke of the elements that went into this successful relationship. The first of these was Britain and Ireland’s shared membership of the European Union, which ‘psychologically, has placed us on a more equal footing as nations than at any time in our history’. However, almost as he was speaking, that equality as fellow EU members was starting to become problematic.
There has always been a potential tension between Ireland’s geographical, cultural and economic closeness to the old imperial power and her newer and rather successful relationship with the EU. One of the central thrusts of Irish economic policy since the late 1950s had been to reduce the country’s enormous trade dependence on the UK (as recently as the mid-1950s over 90% of Irish exports went to Britain; in recent years it has been less than 20%). EU membership since 1973 has played a central role in this policy.
Successive Irish governments have always been committed to a deepening of the European Union (despite some serious doubts by the Irish electorate in their initial rejections of the Nice and Lisbon treaties), whereas the UK has tended to see the EU primarily as a trade arrangement to promote British economic interests.
Former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald foresaw this tension between the two countries’ EU policy directions as long ago as 2000, when he said: ‘There must at least be a possibility that a future stronger pull towards Britain… could conflict with Ireland’s need to enjoy a capacity for independent action in the European sphere.’ [i]
Something of that has begun to happen during the past two years. We all know how in 2010 the Irish Government was forced to seek an €85 billion ‘bail out’ from the ‘troika’ of the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund as its debt-ridden public finances and banking sector came close to collapse. This loss of fiscal sovereignty has tied Ireland more closely to the EU and the eurozone, making its integration into an eventual banking union, to be followed by elements of a fiscal, and perhaps even a political union, more likely. The jury is out on whether Ireland’s submission to a harsh EU and IMF-imposed austerity regime is working, although one major US investor has talked recently about the ‘Irish turnaround’ being ‘one of the best investments of the decade.’[ii]
The situation in Britain could not be more different. Here, with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne warning that austerity and recession will last until 2018, Euroscepticism is rampant, particularly in the Conservative party. In June one third of David Cameron’s MPs signed a letter urging him to legislate for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. An authoritative survey of British attitudes in the following month showed that 49% of people would vote for the UK to leave the EU, and only 32% would vote to remain.[iii] Opinion polls suggest that the anti-EU UK Independence Party will eat heavily into Conservative Party support in the 2014 European parliamentary elections. Many authoritative observers[iv] believe that in these circumstances an in/out referendum in Britain must be only a matter of time, with a vote to leave the Union highly probable.
Where does all this leave the small, peripheral province of Northern Ireland? Ironically, one of the few things the DUP and Sinn Fein have in common is their distrust of the EU: the former from a position of old-style Tory ‘British loyalism’, the latter from their insular philosophy of ‘We ourselves’. Those positions probably chime well with the instinctive conservatism and feeling of distance from the EU which is the dominant attitude of most Northern Irish people, unionist and nationalist.
But what will it mean for the island of Ireland if the UK – and with it Northern Ireland – leaves the European Union? A recent paper co-authored by the former Irish ambassador to Britain, Dáithi O’Ceallaigh, warns that such a withdrawal would be ‘a source of enormous instability and turbulence for Ireland’. It would mean that ‘an external border of the European Union would run through the island of Ireland.’ [v]
The extreme fringe of unionism might relish this prospect, but intelligent people everywhere on the island would be horrified. What would happen to the Common Travel Area between the two islands? Or nearly 50 years of bilateral trade treaties? Would Ireland have to agree a trade agreement with Britain outside the EU framework which would endanger its determination to remain at the core of Europe? What would it mean for one of the building blocks of the Belfast Agreement – practical North-South cooperation – which has led, in Peter Robinson’s words, to a ‘better than ever relationship’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic? And on the other side of the ideological fence, what would its implications be for the Irish nationalist dream of eventual unity by consent?
i) Fitzgerald, G., Blair’s Britain, England’s Europe: A View from Ireland, 2000
ii) ‘Irish bond trader buys big into ‘Irish turnaround’, The Irish Times, 14 December 2012
iii) Survey of British attitudes by Chatham House and YouGov, July 2012
iv) e.g The Economist, 8-14 December 2012
v) O’Ceallaigh, D. and Kilcourse, J., Towards an Irish Foreign Policy for Britain, Institute for International and European Affairs, August 2012.
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.